The Orthodox Jewish community of Brooklyn was in shock today after federal authorities charged a local rabbi with running a scheme to coerce husbands with violence and electric cattle prods to grant divorces to their unhappy spouses for fees that ran to tens of thousands of dollars.
Rabbi Mendel Esptein, 68, of the Kensington section of Brooklyn and Rabbi Martin Wolmark, 55, of Rockland County north of the city were being held without bail accused of charging between $70,000 and $100,000 in return for ‘persuading’ reluctant orthodox husbands to grant the divorces known as ‘gets’.
Details of the seemingly less-than-holy service are included in the criminal complaint and were splashed across New York City’s tabloids today. The Daily News cover showed a white-haired Epstein under the mock-movie title, ‘The Prodfather’. ‘Kosher Assault!’ blared a characteristically indignant New York Post.
Altogether 10 men were arrested in the case and federal charges were read against them in a court in Trenton, New Jersey. A lawyer for both rabbis accused the prosecution of “overreaching”,
The complaint said that Rabbi Epstein had on a number of occasions hired “tough guys” to kidnap the husbands and force them to acquiesce to giving ‘gets’ through violence that included not just the use of electric prods but also the placing of plastic bags over their heads.
Their scheme was exposed by an undercover FBI agent who posed as a desperate wife asking Epstein to help her escape her marriage. She was wearing a wire and videotaped some of the conversations, one detailing how he would arrange for her husband to be roughed up inside an anonymous van.
“Basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get,” Epstein was videotaped saying. “I guarantee that if you’re in the van, you’d give a get to your wife,” he went on, according to the criminal complaint. “We take an electric cattle prod . . . you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.”
Prosecutors alleged that the arrested men were involved in kidnappings of this sort over as long as twenty years. They believed that if they left no physical marks on the men the police would never go after them. “They didn’t do it out of religious conviction,” Assistant US Attorney Joseph Gribko told a Trenton Judge. “They did it for money.”
But a lawyer for Epstein and the other rabbis told reporters prosecutors had gone too far, implying they were ignorant of orthodox tradition. “The government says that it’s all about money. I don’t think it’s quite that clear,” the lawyer said. “These may be controversial but old religious traditions.”